By Harry Awurumibe, Africa’s No.1 Women’s Football Journalist
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s launch of its first women’s football league on Monday will clear the way for girls who dream of turning professional and maybe even playing in a FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Long condemned for harsh restrictions on women, Saudi Arabia lifted a decades-old ban on female footballers only a few years ago, and it is now aiming to develop a national team strong enough to contest major tournaments.
The ultra-conservative Muslim nation has faced criticism of using sports events to gloss over its poor human rights record and the jailing of women activists.
Its latest step in the reform drive came this month when the Saudi football federation announced the formation of a women’s soccer league in which 16 teams will take part with games in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.
Among those excited by the move was Farah Jafri, who said she hoped to turn pro and play in England’s top division as well as represent her country on the biggest stage at the World Cup.
“In the beginning of my football journey, I faced some difficulties in that not all people accepted it,” she told AFP.
“But my family and friends used to encourage me a lot,” said the ponytailed 18-year-old dressed in a jersey.
Like many other girls who were passionate about football but unable to participate in competitions, Jafri played on the street with her relatives or at school with friends. Her only other outlet was watching games on television, she said.
The kingdom adheres to a rigid interpretation of Islam, and the involvement of women in sport is still frowned upon in some quarters.
But since the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017, some restrictions on women have been lifted as the country opens up to the world through sweeping reforms. The shift has enabled women to get behind the wheel and take part in mixed-gender settings, even as a rigorous crackdown on dissent remains in place.
Iran, Jordan, Turkey, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Indonesia are some of the predominantly muslim countries that have given women’s opportunities to play women’s football at international level.
This is even as the world football governing body, FIFA had since March 2014 authorised the wearing of head covers for religious purposes during matches.
That has allowed female Muslim players who wear a hijab in everyday life to cover their heads during matches as well just as FIFA added that male players will also be authorised to do so following a request from the Sikh community in Canada.